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A Meeting in the Park – A Short Story Revival

Another example of anecdotal sludge snatched from the jaws of File Shredder in the nick of time.  I always liked this one:

“I think you’re very beautiful.”  Martin said.

Alana felt the hot scarlet of a blush as it crept up her graceful neck, the way it always did whenever she was surprised by a compliment, no matter how clumsily it was delivered or by whom.   “Thank you.  I wish I deserved that.”  She said with a shy smile.

“I saw you and I thought…” Martin hesitated, gathering his strength; “I thought I must speak.  I simply had to speak.  I often walk Rufus in this park, but I don’t remember seeing you here before.”

“No.  I don’t suppose you do.  I’m new here, you see.  We just moved in to the new apartments over there.  Your dog is very clever.”

“Yes.  You can pet him if you like.  He’s extremely gentle.”  

Alana crouched in front of the fair-haired Labrador, offering her delicate long fingers for Rufus to get her scent before she gently scratched his ear.  “You’re a clever boy!”  She praised him.  “Without you I would have lost my diary.  Thank you.”  And Rufus pressed his head against her hand, wagging his tail furiously.  She looked up at the young man.  “I wish I had a treat for him.”

“Oh please don’t worry.  He’s a natural retriever, you see.  It isn’t a trick to Rufus; he just can’t help himself.  He saw you’d left your book on the bench when you walked away and he went straight to it.  It’s what he does.”

“Well, I’m very grateful.”

“I wonder…” the young man was tongue-tied again.  “I wonder if someone as lovely as you would ever consider going out to dinner with someone like me?”

Alana smiled her demurest smile.   He was very uncertain of himself, this young man, and some might have thought him a little creepy, but she recognized the loneliness in him and understood.  He was good-looking, if you took away those heavy-rimmed glasses, made him trim those lank strands of black hair.  “I would love to.”  She said. 

They met at Sardi’s on the Quayside, where they feasted on lobster that had been landed that morning and drank white wine from Bourgogne.  He learned that Alana had an elder brother and they had arrived in town only a week ago.  She learned what she had first suspected:  that Martin lived alone in a small bedsit overlooking the park.  He was lonely, she decided. 

“You don’t have any relatives?”

“Not here.  They live up-country.”

“You don’t get to see them very often?”

“Scarcely at all.  My father and I, we argue every time we meet.”

“So when did you last see him?”

“Oh – years.”

Martin was a software engineer.  “I’m sort of freelance.  I don’t get much work these days…”

“I bet you’re very good…”

“Things move so fast – I don’t keep up so well.”

Alana smiled consolingly, placing her hand on his.  “Martin, I can help you.”

Martin walked her home, and by the time they reached her door he was clinging to her hand as though his life depended upon it.  He looked up to her windows to see there was a light shining there.  “Your mum and your brother – I expect they’re home.”  He said wistfully.

“I think they are.”  She said.

“Will I see you again?”

“What about tomorrow evening, when you’re walking Rufus in the park?  I’d love to join you then.”

He smiled, comforted by the knowledge she had not been bored by him, that his conversations surrounding the swift evolution of software had somehow entertained her.

As if she were reading his mind, she said:  “Thank you for a lovely dinner and your company Martin.  It’s been fun.”

He waited, expecting her to turn, disappear through the door.  She waited, filling his eyes with hers.   Impulsive?  No, he was never that. So she leaned towards him, and kissed him, almost chastely: almost, but not quite.  He walked away before he had to admit he was crying.  

The hours to the following evening passed very slowly for Martin.  They were punctuated by impossible hopes and dreams which floated around the ethereal image of Alana.  Alana in the blue dress she had worn last night, Alana in white wedding weeds, Alana in – he could only dare himself to peep – nothing at all.  Guilt consumed him, anxiety possessed him, and fear (that she would not keep their assignation in the park) almost drove him to distraction.

He reached his habitual walk early, with Rufus in enthusiastic tow, but lingered.  He positioned himself upon a bench with a view of the park gates while Rufus fidgeted at his feet, eager to be walked.  From where he sat he could see Alana approach, watching her even, faun-like stride through the railings.  The evening was warm enough for the short green skirt she wore and the street quiet enough for the click of her heels to be audible.

Martin spotted the man in the red bomber jacket almost before Alana did. The man was young, well built with a strong face and a bold, confident stride – everything Martin was not.   He was walking towards Alana, he knew her.  A thousand tiny needles of apprehension pricked at the back of Martin’s eyes as he watched them meet, as they performed a ritual of hand gestures in pursuit of their hum of conversation.  HE was someone she would want to be with; the kind of man a girl like that deserved.   HE would have a decent income, a regular job, property, a fast car…

Alana saw Martin as soon as she turned away from the man.  She gave a quick glance over her shoulder to see if the man was watching before she waved cheerfully.   “You’re early!”   She said as she hurried towards him.  “Come on, Martin, let’s walk!”

He gave her one of his bleakest, most defeated smiles.  But he did not ask her about the man.  He dared not.  Alana did not volunteer any information; instead she snuggled cozily into his side, her arm through his as though they were already lovers, while Rufus trotted faithfully behind.  For what seemed an hour neither would break the silence, each just happy to bathe in the other’s company as a red sun set slowly over the distant hill.  At last, resting on the memorial benches by the lake, Martin summoned up all his courage.  With shaking fingers he took her chin as gently as he could and turned her to him.  Then, trying not to breathe, he kissed Alana on the lips.

She sighed, saying softly:  “Not bad.  Now let’s try that again.”  And she returned his kiss.  And she taught him how mouths could explore, and hands excite.

After a while, when his first lessons had been learned, Martin’s disbelief would no longer let him remain silent.  He asked:  “What is it?”

Alana rested her head upon his shoulder contentedly:  “What is what?”

He hesitated because he knew it was a question he should not ask:  “You know what I see in you.  What is it – what can you possibly – see in me?

She turned her head to his, so close he could feel the warm waft of her breath on his cheek, hear the tremulous edge in her voice.  “Perhaps I see much more than you do.  There’s something about you – and Rufus.  Don’t forget Rufus.  Perhaps vulnerability turns me on.”  She squeezed his hand.  “Come on, my little man, I want to take you home.”

So they walked again, retracing the steps that had directed them to their tryst, consumed with laughter and promise.   At the park gates, Martin found himself pausing to look up at Alana’s apartment windows.   “They’re not in tonight.”  She whispered.   “It’s just you and me, Martin.   Come on, let’s hurry!”

Rufus caught his human companions’ mood and pulled them heartily on his leash across the road and along the pavement on the further side,  To his own amazement, Martin was no longer afraid of himself.  He matched Alana’s pace as they hurried to her door, and almost skipped beside her on the wide stone stairs.  Inside the lobby of her apartment he took her in his arms and made her laugh at his ineptitude as he rained kisses on her cheeks, her neck, her arms…  Rufus snuffled, Rufus whimpered, Rufus growled.

The room was dark inside – dark and warm.  A faint, sweet scent filled the air.

“Don’t.”  She whispered, very close.  “Don’t turn on the lights.”

It was Alana who shook now, whose hands were quaking in the grip of her desire, the certain knowledge of his need. 

“You can touch me, Martin.  Touch me darling – I won’t break.  Come on now, don’t wait….don’t, don’t wait.”

It was surprising, in no subtle way, the lance of warmth that pierced his heart.  It found its path with so little pain, so little resistance he scarcely knew it had happened.  Alana was trembling in his arms and crying out her ecstasy.  He was shaking in hers; but it was not joy that made him so.   Making his final, desperate clutch at life his eyes took in the room, now lit; the table he was being thrust back upon, the long, thin knife in Alana’s hand.  And he clattered down beside the saw, and died.

#

“Hi!”  Alana said, pleased despite herself.  “Isn’t it a little early to come calling?”

“You settling in OK?”  Asked the young man in the red bomber jacket.  “I’m kind of interested, being your upstairs neighbor and all.”

“Yes.”  Alana leant against her doorpost.  “I’m fine.”

“Got yourself a dog.”  Rufus, a little scared of the young man, was hiding behind Alana’s legs.  She felt, rather than saw or heard, his presence.

“Yes, got him yesterday.  Nice dog.   Listen, I don’t mean to be rude, but…”

“I’m from Glasgow.”  Said the young man.  “You can probably tell from my accent.  Forgive me stopping you in the street like last night, but I couldn’t help thinking I knew you from somewhere.  Then I remembered:  you used to have red hair, right?”

“No, I think you have me mixed up with….”

“No, I don’t.  I worked in Glasgow CID, you see, before I transferred down here, and we had a lot of photographs of you.   Never did find your mother or your brother, never could hang anything on you.  Always squeaky clean, always tidy.  There was a lot of washing and tidying going on down here last night, wasn’t there?”

Alana was becoming annoyed:  “Look, I don’t know who you have got me mixed up with, but you’re wrong.  Now will you go away – please?”

“Fine dog, isn’t he?  Good retriever.”

“They always are, this breed.”  Rufus had come to sit at her heel.  She reached down to pet his shoulder.  “So what?”

“So he’s brought you a shoe.”

“Oh Rufus!”  Alana scolded.  “Whatever am I going to do with you?”  She looked down.   And she added in quite a different voice:  “Put it back, Rufus.”

But Rufus trusted the young man and he wanted to give him the shoe as a gift.  First, though, he had to adjust his grip, so he put the shoe down and, to achieve better balance, he picked it up again, holding it by the leg that was still wearing it…

© Frederick Anderson 2015.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Out of Darkness

The pavement is narrow here.  They elbow against him as they pass.  He remonstrates; they laugh at him, the children.  Nervous laughter, child laughter.

“I’m not frightened of an old man!”  One of them says.  “He looks like a paedophile, du’nn’ee?  You’re a paedophile, mister!  Dirty old ****!”

Maybe it is a conceit, he thinks, to assume the little boy’s remarks are directed at him.  I am old, he protests in the silence of himself.  That is my only crime.  The heinous effrontery of age, the obscenity of blemished flesh, of that crime alone, am I guilty. Yet it qualifies as another milestone on his descent into chaos, another small reminder that the narrow path to darkness is nearing its (and his) conclusion.  He turns for home, fleeing in his hesitant gait for the four walls that have become ever more a refuge with the advancing years.  Inside his house he need not face a hostile world, or openly parade his profane old age.  Here he may sit with his book, seeing, not the black of the words or the white of the page, but the crinkled parchment of his hands, their yellowing skin, the veins ever bluer, the brown freckles that grow and multiply.  He can study a new language, shutting his mind to the truth that he will never travel abroad again.  Is not learning a virtue in itself?

“Did you pick up your pills?”  His wife asks, knowing.

“No.”  Had that been the motivation which thrust him onto the street, put him out there?  “I forgot.  I can get them tomorrow.”

She smiles at him, her sad eyes filled with an understanding she is powerless to express.  She has been a good wife to him, faithful and selfless in her care as the storm clouds of his greater years gather above them both.  But there is no ‘both’ anymore, no unity.  Love, however deep, has transmuted into a bond of duty, and she moves around him in a different world, tidying, cooking for him, suffering the harsher edges of his fragility.  She has her own life, her ordered world.  She has her friends, she has her faith:  he has none.

He will not detain her long, she tells those friends.  Day by day she watches him fade, reads the terror in his eyes, the self-disgust.  Within the carapace of his four walls he treads the path to the end of each day, always aware how time is speeding past.  He is waiting for the one absolute certainty – afraid of it, unable to close his mind to it, reluctant, even in jest, to speak its name.  He goes to bed each night, carrying it like a raven on his shoulder, knowing it may strike before he wakes.

He seems to be in a restaurant that is not unfamiliar, although he cannot recall when he might have been there before.  There are many tables, spruce with starched table-cloths, red on white, and there are firm, reassuring upright chairs.  He is the only customer.   A waitress brings coffee to his table.  Once again, he feels he knows her too, although he cannot remember where or when they might have met.  She wears a uniform blue, he thinks, though he cannot say for sure.  Of just this he may be certain – she has the loveliness of innocence.  Such is the unspoiled softness of her cheek as she stoops to serve him he cannot forebear, but must reach up to stroke it with his hand.

He starts back, alarmed at his transgression.  He stammers:   “I’m sorry!  I don’t know what came over me!”

Her reply is gentle.  “It’s all right.  It’s meant to be.”

She does not draw back, the girl, but stoops so she is closer to him; so he can feel a brief zephyr of her breath upon his face.   Her eyes meet his, and they seem to say that if he kissed her that would be all right, too.

“I know you.”  He says, although if he were truthful he does not.

“Do you?”  Her smile is like a shaft of sunlight through rain, as she murmurs, “I seem to be affected by you.”

He begins to rise from his chair, until only inches separate their lips.

And he wakes.

For some hours into the new day the perfection of the girl is radiant in his mind; he cannot forget the sweetness of her voice; his heart is full and hopeful.   When next he dreams, might she be there, awaiting him?  And if she is, will their lips be joined in the honesty of that unaccomplished kiss?

But no matter how strong his desire, though he may deliberately put her image in his mind each time he finds himself slipping into sleep, she does not come again.  A week passes, then two.  He has pictured her walking hand in hand with him along the pathway to the beach, her bare feet splashing in the shallows, the wind in her hair.  All that, and yet he does not dream of her – or dream at all.

Then, one day when waking of itself is pain, he hears that voice again.  “You do not know me, but you will.”

The words are spoken so sweetly and so clearly he cannot do other than understand their meaning.  It is a promise.  For now he must be patient, keep her in his heart as an uncorrupted memory, because when the time comes he must recognise her face again.

In his twentieth year of another time, of maybe another place, he will be sitting in a restaurant with clean red tablecloths where he goes to read the research on  his thesis, and a girl will come to serve him coffee, and he will not know her, but his heart, his innermost soul will remember.  He will gently stroke her cheek and she will smile because her heart has remembered too.

With this certain image for his future tightly wrapped inside his mind he is ready at last to shake off the snakeskin of his years and begin a new journey.   When, later that morning, his wife discovers him she can feel no grief, because the expression those shrunken features wears is of peaceful acceptance.  He rests content.

Phtot Credit:  Alex Blajan at Unsplash

 

 

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Nowhere Lane – Chapter Twenty-Seven Altered Fortunes

Those who knew Jacintha Driscombe would have been surprised if they learned of her hatred for London.  Although she never openly expressed it, she endured the round of Kensington and Knightsbridge parties that formed so much of Stafford’s political life with gritted teeth and icy propriety, conceding to her husband’s wilder excesses only because they instilled sufficient guilt in him to ensure his loyalty to her.  When he returned from an evening of raucous indulgence she would be waiting to tell him how much damage he had done to his image, and how fortunate he was that the gossip columnists had given his particular soiree a miss.

Stafford would affect unconcern, dismissing her as a scold, and never really accepting his wife’s reminders that sobriety was a precondition for someone intent upon high office.   His conscience would be pricked, however, and he would remind himself to be more cautious next time he found himself tempted by an ample bosom.  He was always prey to temptation, was Stafford, and he was far too socially obtuse to recognize the true cause of his wife’s discomfiture.   Once, after all, she had loved London – why didn’t she now?  Jacintha would never tell him: she would never confess to the threatening train of events that haunted her dreams, if one day his behaviour should awaken the instincts of a newshound eager to expose the darker corners of her very ordinary past.  This town was full of relatives and past show-business associates all of whom would be ready to tear her, and therefore his prospects, apart.

The night of July fourteenth, nineteen sixty-four was particularly vital.  The party of itself not excessively so, only in its choice of guests, one of whom was  President of the Board of Trade, a man considered to be an invincible force in Stafford’s political party, and almost certainly destined to become its leader.  In stature Edward Heath was not particularly prepossessing, but the shake of his hand, especially if accompanied by a short exchange of views, was an ambition within Stafford’s compass, and Jacintha was coolly focused upon seeing it achieved.

Heath was not particularly susceptible to the charms of the female sex; Jacintha knew this, but for once her own frail history played to her advantage, because Heath also suffered from inglorious antecedents, being, exceptionally for a high ranking Conservative, the son of a builder and a maid.  She would never refer to this commonality in conversation, of course, but it engendered a certain ease of communication which gave her the chance to corner the great man and engage him for some time.

Despite an ancestral line founded among the Stuart kings and a mountain of family wealth (the Driscombes owned the mining rights to several mountains, most of which were full of gold), Stafford Driscombe was a very moderate politician.  It had taken Jacintha’s perspicuity, together with an unfortunate experience while shopping one Saturday in Caleybridge, to set him upon a crusade which allowed his horizons to broaden.  There was no doubt the abolition of National Service and liberal enlightenment that would soon transform a generation into what has become known as the ‘Swinging Sixties’, had created an unhealthy youth culture prone to violent displays – a general revolt against the Conservatives’ precious status quo.  Upon Jacintha’s suggestion, and with not a little cajoling which, like most of her invocations, started in the bedroom, Stafford had stepped forward as the standard bearer of those who wished to discipline the rebel ‘Mods and Rockers’ and, to use Stafford’s own words;  “Bring law and order back to the streets of Britain.”

As catch-phrases go, it was hardly ‘catchy’.  As problems went, the new-found freedoms of youth would take on many other more challenging aspects, but it afforded Stafford an opportunity to exercise his true skills, those of covert plotting and devious dealing.  In his long occupation of his parliamentary seat he had cultivated a number of friendships in the more conspiratorial depths of Home Office, and it was these, as much as any other modicum of success, that began to attract notice from The Party, notice sufficient to allow Jacintha to touch Edward Heath gently on his arm and utter words that would become fateful in their time:

“Ted, I wonder if I could introduce you to my husband?”

#

It was not sight that first informed Patrick in his awakening but touch – the soft brush of a kiss upon his forehead; so that when he raised his eyelids for a confused look at the returning world the view in the mist was of Jacqui Greenway looking embarrassed and ecstatic at the same time.  She withdrew quickly, her eyes shining and a laugh that was half a sob caught in her throat.

“You’re awake!”  She said, pointlessly.

He murmured something he would never remember.  Then he went back to sleep.

Recovery was to take months.  There were internal injuries as well as bones to heal, all of which involved intense discomfort and chronic pain.  Only a first fortnight of this time was spent in a hospital bed, the remainder at his home, Radley Court.  Gwendoline, his mother, was watchful, his sister Gabrielle attentive, Jackson, his father, for the most part absent, working as hard as ever.  Spring of the year following Karen Eversley’s disappearance was spent in long hours on the lawns with Petra, now fully healed and back to her usual obstreperous self, bouncing at Patrick in her enthusiasm, impervious to his disability and in danger of adding to it.

Now and then Jacqui’s car would venture up the driveway to Radley Court.  Patrick found himself anticipating her visits more and more eagerly because her companionship was always pleasurable and her controlled sympathy for his reduced state a balm his family somehow failed to administer.  When Jacqui visited Gwendoline would watch from a distance, reading the young woman’s heart with the same acuity she once demonstrated to Karen.  The difference was in Patrick’s reaction, which she could interpret equally well.  Nevertheless, Jacqui and her son spent hours together, sitting side by side on the grass on warm days, in the snug when it was cold or if it rained.  And the conversation was empty, while the meanings crammed within it left no room for more.

As Spring turned to Summer Patrick’s and Jacqui’s friendship deepened; but there was another – and Jacqui always understood this – who held onto his heart.

“Everybody tells me she’s dead; that she’s in a ditch somewhere, cold and returning to the earth.  I can’t see that.  I can’t accept it.  I may never find her again, yet I know she’s alive.  I can’t explain why; I just know.”

Such is the illusion that grips many who mourn the lost, that no matter how unimpeachable the evidence they will still hold fast to a belief that in some way their loved one has survived.  Nevertheless, Patrick seemed content with wishing.  Somehow he contrived to close the book on his relationship with Karen, in a way that mystified Gabrielle, who of all his family was the most persistent and the most loyal.  She had barely time to strike a friendship with Karen, yet it was she who kept searching, quietly asking questions, seeking answers.  Patrick?  Gabrielle excused her brother for doubting; maybe he just couldn’t accept that Karen’s love for him had been as deep as she herself believed.  Maybe he had succumbed to the police-inspired argument: Karen had simply left him and moved on.

There existed another reason for Patrick’s demeanour, however; one he never divulged.   Mrs Buxham, Radley Court’s ‘Morning Lady’ was so seriously overworked she could sometimes be guilty of shoddy cleaning practices; a crime for which she was never blamed because everyone except Jackson recognized the enormity of keeping a small mansion in order.  Mrs Buxham was becoming elderly: Mrs Buxham needed help.   So Patrick was less put out of temper than he should have been when, returning from hospital and still deeply ill, he was visited in his bedroom by the considerable personage of Mrs Buxham, in apologetic mode.

“I’m so sorry, Mr Patrick.  I was cleaning the room Miss Karen stayed in t’other day.  This were in the bedside drawer.  I must have missed it last time.”

She thrust a small envelope into Patrick’s hand, then retreated hastily before Patrick worked out the implication she had only entered the room twice to clean it in the last ten months.  The envelope was addressed simply:  ‘Pat’.  The slip of notepaper from within it said:

My Darling Pat,

Our time together is almost over. 

Be happy, only spare a moment now and then to remember me with fondness? 

You taught me love.  You taught me so much.

Your devoted Karen.

#

In July Paul and Gabrielle announced they would be married, and the house rattled and banged and rushed and bustled with renewed vitality.  That was the month Jacqui remembered for the first time she saw a smile reach as far as Patrick’s eyes.

“I want you in the business.”  Jackson Hallcroft told Patrick.  “You know I’ve always wanted that.  I need your help, son.  And you need mine.”

“What makes you think I could do it?”

“You’re a Hallcroft, aren’t you?  You’ve a head on those shoulders.  The market’s changing and our industry could use a few clear heads right now.”

Patrick’s view of the proposition was fatalistic.  He might as well do that as anything else, and idleness had become irksome.  Whether boredom or the prospect of a new set of company wheels enticed him, the following Monday Patrick limped through the doors of his father’s mill.  It was the first time in a lot of years he had been further than Jackson’s office to stand among those great machines which produced carpets branded with his family’s name; the immensity, the noise and the smell of dyes entered his blood and he was smitten.

Jackson Hallcroft was no easy taskmaster.  He insisted Patrick learned every aspect of the trade:  In the years which followed he was grounded by learning the milling process, acquiring the expertise needed to mind the machines, teaching himself how they worked and their capabilities.  Inch by inch he improved, seeing how his father was blinded by his own success and adding his voice to those on the factory floor who predicted the need for change.  If the history of Hallcroft Carpets were ever to be finally written, it would be said that Jackson built the business, but his son took on the new markets and won.

So time passed: the months grew into years, and the years since Karen’s disappearance multiplied.  Although she held a place she had requested in Patrick’s heart, he no longer expected to meet her around every corner, or read her name in a newspaper, or hear her voice in a crowded room.  You should not doubt his faith:  in a few days in a forgotten time, he had found love, only to have it taken from him.  Had he the means or the knowledge to find Karen he would have done so, but she was gone – vanished.  The Old Father worked a healing magic, a spell he needed if he was to live his life, and Karen became a memory consigned to an archive of that life.

It was on a day in early August of 1969.  Gabrielle and Paul now lived in a town in the North, where Paul had a job that promised a partnership later on.  Amanda (Sprog) was compensating for her erratic schooling by exhibiting the first signs of brilliance and a determination to pursue her mother’s profession with all of her mother’s skill.  At fifteen she had grown tall and statuesquely beautiful, while her rampant snobbery had dwindled to a sediment within her speech, so that it was no longer the things she said that were offensive, merely the way she said them.  Gwendoline’s hair had turned to grey.  She had become dangerously thin, inducing Patrick to conclude his mother had some illness, though she would not speak of it.  She still rode, if a little painfully.

Patrick at 29 years old, now a director in his father’s company, telephoned his friend Jacqui to suggest a meeting in Caleybridge at their usual restaurant.  At the end of the call, Jacqui replaced her receiver thoughtfully.  She and Patrick had dated sporadically through the years, although he never called them ‘dates’. They never ended with more than a familiar peck of a kiss, followed by a lonely taxi-ride home.  The pair had no relationship, as such: or fealty to each other.  Each was free to date elsewhere, and did; though with little enthusiasm or success; Patrick, whose heart was stuck in the past, would try to find another Karen when, of course, there was no other to be found, while Jacqui’s quest was more aimless but still, after all, as futile.  There was no alternative Patrick, either.

This day, though, she thought she detected some difference in his voice, which filled her with dread because she knew, deep inside herself, that her infatuation with him must find an end somewhere.  Her hope, the one romantic aspiration which sustained her, was that time would eradicate the scar Karen had left; that in some time to come he would stop re-living the two short weeks when he fell in love, and return to her world.  This had not happened, and she persuaded herself it would not happen.  The platonic years had taken their toll, so now there was a small embittered corner in her heart that almost hated him.

He was already seated at the bar when she walked in.  She had made no effort; sweater and jeans, hair only summarily tamed.  When he turned to see her and smiled his usual welcome some of the palpitations in her chest were eased.  She smiled back.

“I ordered for you.”

“Did you now?”  She said.  “You know I hate that.  I take it we’re eating here, then?”

“I thought…”

“No, that’s okay. I suppose.  I like it here.  What have I got coming; crab, or something?.”

“Oh, look, I’m sorry, Jacks.  I ordered tartare, but I can change it if you want?”

“No!”  Jacqui raised a defensive hand:  “Tartare’s fine, just fine.  I wish you’d leave me the freedom to choose, that’s all.”

There was a corner table they were accustomed to booking, and although the restaurant’s popularity was increasing now, Patrick’s status as a customer normally assured them of their place.

For a while they small-talked: Patrick had been out of town; how was Bea?  Was Bopper settling into his new promotion?  Had she sorted out the lighting she wanted for her apartment yet?  The main course came and went, but the evening had begun on a low note, and Jacqui’s impatience began to show.  “What’s this about, Pats?”

“How d’you mean?”

“Not our usual night is what I mean.  You, nervous as a cornered rabbit, that’s what I mean.  What’s going on?”

Patrick sipped his wine, nodding slowly.  “I didn’t realize I was so transparent.”

“After all these years I shouldn’t know you?  Come on, give!”

“I’m going to talk politics for a minute.”

“Must you?”

“You asked.  It’s like this, Jacks.  You know there’s an election coming up, don’t you?  Everyone thinks Labour is going to win.”

“You don’t?”

“Wilson’s not handling Ireland well, and there’s a lot of disquiet about the strength of the unions which I think will turn the country towards a Tory government.  I’ve been watching the changes very carefully, and I’m fairly convinced.  Not a landslide win, maybe, but almost certainly a new administration, and it’s going to be run by Heath.”

“I guess I agree, although I wish it wasn’t Heath.  The man has no charisma.  He reminds me too much of Douglas-Home.”

“Really?  A blue-blood against a wannabe?  Still, be that as it may, if Heath wins he’ll have us in the Common Market within the year.  I happen to think that’s his big appeal.  It’s a foregone conclusion, and ‘Hallcrofts’ have to be placed to take advantage of it.”

“So?”

“So I’m meeting a small trading mission of European buyers in London next week.  They’re on a busy schedule, and I’ll only have an hour or two with them, but I hope to open the doors to a German marketplace that’s made for us.”

“Surely it’ll be two years before the trade links are available.  And that’s if Heath does win.”

“The avenues are open now, they just aren’t free of tariffs and bureaucratic obstacles; if I’m prepared to finance some initial losses, I’ll have a very big foot in the door when those issues are removed.”

“I see that.  Pats, darling?”

“Hmm?”

“What has this to do with me?”

“I don’t speak fluent German.  You do.  Your French isn’t bad, either – better than mine.  I need an interpreter, and I was hoping…”

Jacqui groaned.  “Sorry.  Count me out.  I’m flattered you should ask, but how do I get away from work?  Pat, I can’t just take time off, not these days.  There’s too much going on.”

“Two days, that’s all I ask.  Two days in London.  I’d love it if you could come, give your moral support and all that.  I wouldn’t ask, but I just know it would work for us both.

Jacqui thought she saw what was in his mind, but it needed to remain unsaid.  Surely not?  After all these wasted years?  That trepidation she had felt when he first telephoned her for this meeting returned threefold.

“Is it what you really want?”

“I think so, yes.”  He grinned.  “I’ve taken long enough about it, haven’t I?”

Her heart answered.  “All right, if you’re sure, Pats.  I’ll work it out somehow.  I’ll come.”

So it was that Patrick and Jacqui met on Platform Two of Caleybridge’s railway station at 6:00 am one weekday morning, the seventh day after their discussion.  As always, Patrick was there first, and when he heard the click of Jacqui’s heels on the stone behind him his mind flew back to a corridor and a Conference Room in a place consigned to memory.  He turned to greet her with the recollection burning in his mind, but then his jaw dropped open and his heart leapt at the sight of the woman he saw walking towards him.  Jacqui had made an effort.

#

“Tarq?”  ‘Becca Shelley’s snappy terrier-voice travelled well.  Tarquin Leathers, three desks away, heard her above the newsroom din.

“Yes, sweet Rebecca?”

“You remember this one from your ‘Record’ days?”  ‘Becca waved a news clipping above her head.  “Six years ago.  Caleybridge.”

“Where?  Oh, home sweet home, darling!  Hang on a minute; I think so.  It was my by-line, wasn’t it?”

“None other, Babe.   ‘Heir to Carpet Baron’s Millions Jilted’.  You could write some crap in those days, yeah?”

“Newshound that I now am, I haven’t lost the gift.  Stale copy, is that what you’re saying?”

“Maybe, maybe not.”    Rebecca’s rapid rise from the dungeon of the Beaconshire County Herald to a national ‘daily’ had not been achieved by freely sharing her secrets. “I think I might take this home, run me head around it a few times.”

“What have you got simmering in that evil little mind of yours?  If I remember rightly the story was still-born.  It’s provincial dead news.”

‘Becca rose half to her feet, so she could see across the newsroom partitions to Tarquin’s desk.  She tapped the side of her nose.  “Just a feelin’, Tarq.”

“Ah, really, just a ‘feelin’?  Bollocks, my dear!  Just a tip-off.  You want to spin anything my way?”

“Nah.  It’s probably nothing, anyhow.  And whatever nothin’ is, it’s all mine.”

 

© Frederick Anderson 2018.  All rights reserved. Each chapter of this book is a work of fiction.  All names, characters, businesses, organizations, places and events in the story or stories are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places or events is entirely coincidental.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content